Return of the James Shields Changeup

The Royals made a trade for James Shields and evaluators had things to say about it. The Royals, for their part, were confident in their belief that Shields could help push the team to its intended destination, and on Tuesday, before a partisan audience, Shields will start the Royals’ biggest game in decades. It’s fitting for a man nicknamed Big Game James, and though a big part of the reason for that is the convenience of his first name rhyming with Game, this is how the Royals drew it up. They wanted to get to games that matter, and then they wanted to give the baseballs that matter to James Shields.

Good pitchers aren’t defined by any single quality, unless you grant the quality of being good. There’s a lot that goes into being a top-of-the-rotation starter, and while, say, Clayton Kershaw has an incredible slider, he’s not incredible because of his slider. Jon Lester has an incredible cutter, but he’s not incredible because of his cutter. Good pitchers, like all things, are complicated to understand, but there are most certainly standout skills. Kershaw does have a standout slider. Lester does have a standout cutter. And James Shields? Shields is good at a lot of things, but he’s known for having a standout changeup. Or, he was. And now he is again, but there was a time that the pitch went missing. It’s been an interesting year for the best pitch in Shields’ arsenal.

I don’t know how you feel about the pitch values that we offer on FanGraphs, but over big enough samples, I think they can serve a great purpose. They can tell you an awful lot about a pitcher’s true profile, and below, check out James Shields’ pitch values from 2011 – 2013. Numbers shown are in total runs better than average. This is a counting statistic.

Pitch Value
Fastball 2.0
Cutter 6.7
Curveball 9.1
Changeup 42.7

Here’s what that tells you: Shields threw a changeup a lot, and he threw it really well. In 2011, our numbers say Shields had the third-best changeup in baseball. In 2012, sixth-best. In 2013, fifth-best. Tops a year ago was Cole Hamels, and everyone agrees his changeup is awesome. Same with Felix Hernandez‘s changeup. Same with Stephen Strasburg’s changeup. No one would’ve argued that Shields’ changeup was terrific, and the numbers supported the pitch’s reputation.

So that’s something we can glean from the pitch values. That’s the background, for James Shields’ changeup. Then, after 2013, 2014 came along.

Through the season’s first four months, Shields started 23 games. He posted an ERA of 3.50, but he posted an RA/9 of 4.34, in a pitcher-friendly park with a pitcher-friendly defense in a pitcher-friendly era. Shields very much wasn’t himself, and while there were a few culprits, it was astonishing what was being done to his changeup. From the start of the year through the end of July, Shields’ change had a pitch value of -10.3 runs. That was — sit down for this — that was the very lowest changeup pitch value in baseball. Shields was throwing his changeup plenty, but it wasn’t working for him. Some was bad luck, and some was bad pitches. It wasn’t just that Shields’ changeup was doing worse. It was that it was doing arguably the worst. It had to be a real concern, the Royals’ ace pitching without his best weapon.

Well, you’ve already read the headline of the post. Since August began, Shields has started 11 games. He’s posted an ERA of 2.67, and an RA/9 of 2.67. Shields, in other words, has pitched like a No. 1, and as for his changeup? It’s had a pitch value of +5.6, over two months. Extrapolated over a full season, that’s about +17, which has been ordinary Shields territory. Over those two months, Shields’ changeup ranks sixth-best in baseball, a few runs behind Alex Cobb and Hamels, and a little behind Carlos Carrasco. Shields’ changeup has been more effective than Felix’s. It’s been more effective than Strasburg’s. Lately, anyway. And the Royals only care about what’s happened lately.

So, again: Shields’ changeup went from one of the best to looking like the worst to being one of the best once more. So now that Shields has his primary weapon, he’s pitching like the guy the Royals wanted him to be at just the right time. As a consequence of his changeup coming back, batters have swung more often, especially at pitches out of the zone. It’s not a surprise that Shields has been more able to limit the quality of contact against him.

There are other signs, too, that Shields has re-gained confidence in his change. He’s thrown the pitch more often down the stretch, especially against right-handed hitters. He’d doubled his changeup rate on the first pitch, and with two strikes, Shields has gone from 31% changeups to 44% changeups. For the sake of comparison, last year he was at 40%. Shields is trusting the changeup more again as a putaway pitch, and he’s also more willing to get ahead with it, and since the whole point of a changeup is to mess with a hitter’s timing, it makes sense that the evidence points to worse timing. The Royals already field a defense that takes care of a lot of balls in play. If a pitcher can make the balls in play even less threatening still, all the better.

There’s so little we can actually say about a wild-card elimination game, but the obvious point here would be that the Royals are pleased to have the version of Shields who’s got a feel for his changeup. Against changeups this year, the A’s had a below-average offense, and against changeups in the second half, they were even worse. The A’s look for low fastballs, and if Shields can make his low changeup look like a low fastball, he should get plenty of off-balance swings, keeping Oakland mostly off the board until it’s time for Wade Davis. And then that’s a whole new profile for Oakland to worry about. This is what the Royals wanted. Shields on the mound, best pitch in his back pocket. This is also why the A’s traded for Jon Lester, so it’s not like either side really has an advantage, but both teams get to go in with some confidence, and for Big Game James, this is a chance to leave a lasting impression in his second home city. This game was the whole point.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago

Current tally after 2 seasons:
Shields + Davis = 13 WAR
Myers + Odorizzi = 4.6 WAR

Shields and Davis have produced nearly the equivalent of Price + Cobb (13.2 WAR) over the past two seasons. The Royal’s side of the deal, however, is just about played out, so their tally won’t keep growing like the Rays hope their tally will. The big question for the Rays is: how long will they have to wait for the combined WAR from their side of the trade to catch up? From a numbers perspective, 13 WAR over 2 seasons or 13 WAR over 4 seasons are still 13 WAR. However, from a post-season standpoint, does 6.5 WAR per season get you significantly closer to the playoffs than 3.25 WAR per season? I look forward to comparing the highest combined single season WAR from the players on each side, after all is said and done.

9 years ago
Reply to  JKB

I’m still waiting (probably in vain) for a reasonable explanation as to why The Trade was panned for its timing (“the Royals aren’t ready to be true contenders,” it was said at the time) on one side, but not the other.
By that I mean, sure the Rays got a top-tier, ready to go prospect in Myers and somebody who they may have liked more than the back-of-the-rotation SP that Odorizzi was widely thought of at the time, but weren’t the Rays not just “ready to be true contenders” but already true contenders coming into 2013?
The Rays won 91 games and went to the playoffs in 2012… and then traded away their 2nd best SP (a top-20 SP in all of MLB) and a very valuable RP for players they readily acknowledged would NOT make them better in 2013, a year in which a few wins might make the difference between making the playoffs, being a wild card (it did) and having homefield (maybe).
I understand the Rays may value perpetual competition more than being World Series favorites, but that is a discussion we as fans, and baseball writers, should have been having. Then again, I’m sure it was probably out there somewhere and I just missed it.

Matthew Murphy
9 years ago
Reply to  JKB

This leaves out the financial component.

The Royals have paid Shields/Davis $32 Million over the past two seasons. The Rays, on the other hand, have only paid about $1.5 Million to Myers/Odorizzi.

If you use $6.5M/WAR, this still gives a big edge to Kansas City – about $53M in excess value, compared to $29M for the Rays. However, if Myers/Odorizzi match their 2013-2014 production in 2015-2016 (which is very conservative, given the fact that neither played a full season in 2013, and Myers was hurt for most of 2014), the Rays would still top the Royals’ in terms of net value before the two even hit arbitration.

9 years ago
Reply to  JKB

Its interesting that Davis has worked out the way he has…fringe starters move to the bullpen all the time, but they are virtually never this dominant. His contributions have made this a short-term win for the Royals, but IMO any evaluation of the Rays’ side of the trade has to take organizational context into account.

Tampa Bay has built a perennial contender out of incredible pitching depth and positional flexibility. Perhaps more than any other team in the majors, they have a surplus of guys that can step into a back-of-the-rotation role and produce a 2.0 WAR season with some upside. Odorizzi, the recently-acquired Smyly, and Cobb, before he made the leap to excellent, fit this mold to a tee. This makes the opportunity cost of trading a guy like Shields or Price lower for them than for other teams. Losing a 5-win pitcher hurts less when you have a 2-3 WAR pitcher ready to step into the rotation.

The Rays’ have used this flexibility to acquire high-upside position players that have the potential to push them into full-on, world series contender status, all with minimal long-term cost. If Myers and Franklin rake next year, you can bet they will be right in the thick of the AL East title chase!